Break Up with Toxic Makeup: Ingredients to Avoid in Makeup and Skin Care Products

For someone who pays really close attention to what she puts in her body, I haven’t always been the most cautious of what I put on it. Which is crazy when you stop and consider how readily our skin absorbs what we put on it. You can just imagine the look on my face when I eventually learned about all the toxins that are regularly included in the cosmetics and beauty products I once used daily.

I’m guessing it looked a little like the look on your face when you first learned what some of those ingredients could mean for your health.

Though most products only contain small amounts of toxins and contaminants, there is a cumulative effect that takes a toll on our bodies and the environment. And this effect doesn’t take so long to build up – according to the EWG, the average woman uses 12 products a day containing an average of about 168 different chemicals total.

Of course, that’s an average for 12 products and let’s face it – many of us use (and are exposed to) more than that. Personal care products are made with 10,500 unique chemical ingredients – many of which are known or suspected carcinogens as well as toxic or disruptive to the endocrine and reproductive system. Add to that the fact that the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require premarket safety testing for the chemicals that go into our skin care and cosmetic products and it gets downright scary – especially if you, like me, assumed that products that made it onto the consumer market were actually safe to use.

Well, it turns out they don’t really have to be. According to the Office of Cosmetics and Colors at the federal Food and Drug Administration, “…a cosmetic manufacturer may use almost any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without an approval from FDA.” (FDA 2012)

As for labeling? The worst are the “trade secret” laws such as in the U.S., where “fragrance and flavor ingredients do not need to be listed individually on cosmetic labels, because they are the ingredients most likely to be ‘trade secrets.’”

But if reading this has you feeling overwhelmed by this toxic overload – don’t you worry. Thanks to increased research by government and independent watchdogs, we now have better access to which ingredients are the most harmful and how you can avoid them. We’ve got options! And knowledge!

And as GI Joe so wisely said – knowledge is half the battle. So for the sake of all you green beauties out there, here’s a handy little list of the most toxic ingredients to avoid in makeup (as well as the rest of your beauty products).


BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are preservatives commonly used in both food and cosmetic products. There is a laundry list of negative effects related to the ingestion and application of BHA and BHT. It’s a known allergen, classified as possible carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—an organization affiliated with the World Health Organization (WHO).

European Commission on Endocrine Disruption (ECED) has found it interferes with hormone functions, and have labeled it an endocrine disruptor. Specifically, it increases estrogen in both men and women, and long-term exposure to high doses is toxic in mice and rats, causing illnesses you don’t want to know about.

Coal Tar

Coal tar-derived colors (also called p-Phenylenediamine) are a combination of petroleum and coal tar products widely used in makeup and perfumes. Identifiable by the prefix C.I. and a five-digit color number, or by the prefix FD&C or D&C followed by the color and a number in the U.S., it’s mostly used in hair dyes with darker hair dyes.

The litany of related illnesses include being an allergen, a known carcinogen (linked to tumors) and is often contaminated with small amounts of heavy metals. On top of all this, the European Union (EU) classifies it as toxic to people and animals and very toxic to aquatic flora and fauna.

Diethanolamine (DEA)

Diethanolamine (DEA) as well as Monoethanolamine (MEA) & Triethanolamine (TEA) are hormone-disrupting carcinogens that are used in making make soaps sudsy and creams creamy. The biggest risk these chemicals pose is when they react with nitrites, which are naturally found in cosmetics, to form nitrosamines, which the IARC classifies as a possible human carcinogens.

They’re mostly found in shampoos, hand soaps, sunscreens and moisturizers – everyday products we typically use multiple times per day. Among the complications related to prolonged use and exposure are skin and eye irritation, as well as precancerous changes in organs. The EU classified them as a harmful and a serious danger to health and has already restricted their use due to known carcinogenic effects. also

Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)

These chemicals are already restricted in Europe due to known carcinogenic effects. In the United States however, they are still used despite the fact that Americans may be exposed to them 10-20 times per day with products such as shampoos, shaving creams and bubble baths.

Dibutyl phthalate (also known simply as phthalates or DBP) are chemicals used to increase the flexibility and softness of certain plastic products such as nail polishes, perfumes, and hair spray. It’s been labeled as an endocrine disruptor, in this instance boosting the amount of estrogen the body produces. It’s been linked to increases in incidence of breast cancer, early puberty in girls, and birth defects in babies of any sex. Unfortunately this is one of the products, which are frequently omitted on ingredient lists, so make sure to research your next bottle of hair spray.

Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives

There are a number of cosmetic products that release formaldehyde, particularly nail polish and hair sprays. They’re used to prevent bacteria and other growths, but the trade-off isn’t worth it.

Formaldehyde occurs naturally in nature at low levels but cosmetics slowly and continuously release small amounts, thus raising your exposure exponentially to a chemical that the IARC classifies as a known human carcinogen. Inhalation is the worst, but it can also be absorbed through the skin. There are currently no serious regulations in the Americas against these products, but in the EU formaldehyde-releasing preservatives must be identified on the product label with the notice, “contains formaldehyde” if the concentration is above half a percent of the total volume.


Parabens are the most widely used type of preservative in cosmetics. Like a number of other entries on this list, parabens are noted endocrine disruptors, mimicking estrogen. Parabens have been found in breast cancer tissue and can also affect male reproduction, lowering sperm count.

Alarmingly, some forms of parabens also interact with UVB rays, short wave ultraviolet light rays. This interaction causes greater skin damage than UVB on it’s own, leading to greater damage, premature aging, and skin cancer. Though they’re supposed to be listed in the ingredients of makeup and hair products, fragrance ingredients don’t need to be listed. So keep those peepers peeled for the common types of parabens: methylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben and watch out for others with paraben as a suffix.

Synthetic Frangrances

Among the worst offenders on the list, manufactured scents are very tricky. Did you know that even “unscented” and “fragrance-free” products often contain perfumes used to trick your brain into thinking there aren’t any perfumes? Deodorants, colognes and perfumes are the obvious products that contain them, but almost every single cosmetic product on the shelves also have their share. With over 3,000 chemicals used in cosmetics to create scents in any number of combinations—and no legal requirement for manufacturers to list them—it’s up to the consumer to be savvy at the shops. The top illnesses and health problems related to using or being exposed to chemical perfumes include:

  • Allergies and migraines. Many sufferers of the latter remark that strong fragrances are regularly the cause of migraines.
  • Not only does it trigger asthma, but has been linked to the development of the condition.
    Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) are triggered by perfumes.
  • Early puberty in girls, reduced sperm count in men, and reproductive defects in the developing male foetuses (when the mother is exposed during pregnancy).
  • Phthalate metabolites (a specific form of perfume chemical) are also associated with obesity and insulin resistance in men.
  • Studies also show that exposure to phthalates, specifically when they are sucked or chewed for extended periods, can cause liver toxicity and organ failure in small children. Not to mention deformities in sexual development.

The biggest issue when it comes to scents? Most of the chemicals used to create scents haven’t been tested for toxicity, never mind the combination of them. This means that there are few laws (if any) to protect consumers from the myriad health effects of perfumes.

Polyethylene Glycol (PEG)

PEGs (Polyethylene Glycols) are petroleum-based mixtures commonly used as cream bases or thickeners. Though not inherently dangerous unless applied to broken skin (in which case they might cause irritation to the skin), PEGs are frequently contaminated ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane, which the IARC has listed as known human carcinogens. Apart from being a potential carcinogen, PEGs aren’t good news for your skin – it’s known to change and even reduce the skin’s natural moisture, which can leave your skin more susceptible to bacteria as well as the signs of aging.


Petrolatum, or good ol’ petroleum jelly, is used on it’s own or in products as a barrier between your skin or hair to open air, allowing keeping them from drying out. Though there is inherently nothing unhealthy about petroleum jelly, it is frequently contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Current research shows that when PAHs are held in contact with your skin for an extended period of time—say for example as a nightly face cream—it can be carcinogenic, or in the very least an allergenic which can cause painful skin irritation.


Siloxanes, typically product ingredients ending in -siloxane, such as cyclotetrasiloxane, are silicone-based compounds used in cosmetics to soften or moisturizers, cream-based cleansers or soaps. They can also be listed as D4, D5, and D6. In addition to being endocrine disruptors, D5 is especially harmful to our neurological health. D5 negatively influences how neurons transmit in the brain and has been linked to tumors found in the reproductive system. In addition, they’re incredibly toxic if ingested and they bioaccumulate in nature—meaning there isn’t really a simple way to clean up siloxanes once they contaminate the environment.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) or Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

SLES are used what makes your shampoos, soaps, gels and cleansers foamy. Just like PEG compounds, depending on where and how they’re manufactured, SLES can be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane as well as ethylene oxide, both well-known human carcinogens. Ethylene oxide is especially pernicious, as it is both a possible nervous system disruptor and can also interfere with brain development in children. Though both can be removed during the manufacturing, there is no way for consumers to which products have undergone the process.


Triclosan is found in antiperspirants, deodorants, hand sanitizers, and antiseptics. Basically, if the product says “antibacterial” then it’s probably got triclosan in it. There are a number of health-related and environmental problems traced back to this almost ubiquitous ingredient. It’s a known skin irritant, can pass through skin (and is suspected of being an endocrine disruptor.) Alarmingly, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that almost 75% of 2,500 people tested have triclosan in their urine.

Though it’s only present in most products in very small amounts, it’s very toxic to aquatic organisms and may cause long-term adverse effects to aquatic environment, as it is also a bioaccumulant like siloxanes. The extensive use of triclosan in so many products is marked as being a huge contributing factor to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.


Unfortunately for us poor consumers, cosmetics are sometimes tainted with heavy metals, which are known carcinogens such as mercury, cadmium, arsenic and nickel. The most common ingredient to suffer from heavy metal taint is talc. It’s up in the air whether or not talk on it’s own is a carcinogen, but even if it’s not, talc can contain asbestos, and depending on the origin country of the product and the country where it was purchased the ingredients label doesn’t have to note whether or not a product containing talc also contains asbestos.

Affiliated to the World Health Organizations, International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies talc with even small amounts of asbestos as “carcinogenic to humans.” Best to do thorough research on a product containing talc before you decide to purchase.

I hate to do this to you, but the above toxic ingredients are really the tip of the iceberg. The good news is that thanks to some very great organizations, it’s easier than ever to look up an ingredient and instantly get the 411 on its toxicity level.

Start here:

  • Environmental Working Group‘s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database is one we visit a whole lot
  • The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics